A foot-high pile of bills on a table wasn't the largest amount of money I'd seen in one place. If it was genuine, it might be in the top ten. If it was counterfeit - well, four years ago I'd seen bills stacked to the rafters on pallets. Money, fake or real, was my job. But it was enough to wake me up at eight-thirty in the morning after a sleepless night.
"How much?" I asked Jack Casey, the agent in charge of the Kansas City branch office of the Secret Service.
"Nine hundred twenty-five thousand, two hundred," Casey said to me. He stood behind the table, his hairy forearms with the Marine Corps tattoos crossed over his barrel chest. A slender wisp of a woman stood next to him.
"Turned in two days ago at the Federal Reserve branch here."
I walked to the table, picked up a bundle of fifties - still bound in the official binding from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing - and flipped through them. They were stiff, stuck together. On closer examination the notes were damaged.
"Water damage." I put the fifties down, picked a bundle of hundreds up. The notes were about two-thirds complete; the remaining third had been burned away, and then soaked with water.
"So why are we here?" I asked. "This is BEP's job. Or the Fed's." The Bureau of Engraving and Printing redeems mutilated currency where less than half of the original bill is still present. For bills that were worn, or if less than fifty percent of the bill was missing, you go to the Federal Reserve.
"It was turned in by a private citizen," said the woman standing beside Casey. "Normally, a sum like this is turned in by banks or businesses. Having a private citizen bring in almost a million dollars in damaged or worn bills does raise suspicion. Counterfeiting is high on the list."
"And you are?"
"Sveta Birman." She had an off-key beauty that took a bit to appreciate, a narrow angular face with thin lips, a nose just a little too prominent, a smile that showed a little too much gum, dark hair cut severely short on the sides - think mid-80s Jamie Lee Curtis.
"I'm with the BEP. They sent me from Washington as soon as the bank notified us. I'm here to supervise the transfer of the money to Washington."
I took her outstretched hand, long delicate fingers with the nails painted red. "You're gonna need a bigger purse," I said. "Tom Barrett. So why am I here?"
Casey smiled, punched my bicep. "You're the resident numismatic and notaphile geek. Tell us what we got here."
I'd been with the Secret Service for fifteen years, ever since I got out of the Navy JAG corps and my marriage fizzled. I wasn't assigned to the Presidential Protection detail, never wanted to take a bullet for anyone. I was assigned to the Counterfeiting division by choice. Money - gold, silver, paper, American, foreign, you name it - had been my passion since I was five years old helping my dad go through rolls of coins pulling out wheat pennies, buffalo nickels and silver dimes and quarters.
I looked at the bundle of hundreds, picked one up. "Series 1950C, issued from - let's see, January '61 to April '62. They look to be new. Seal size and signatures are correct." I set them down, picked up a bundle of fifties. "Same thing, series 1950C, mint condition, what's left of them." I surveyed the table, reached over for another bundle. "Ten dollar silver certificates. Series 1953A, issued the same period. Same observations," I turned them over, saw the small number on the back. "Plate position numbers right, correct size." Another bundle caught my eye, and I picked it up. "Jesus. Thousand dollar Gold certificates, series 1934, issued through July '45." The bundle had suffered water damage, with some mold. "It's enough to make you cry. A circulated note brings around $2500. This bundle alone would be worth a fortune."
These notes had been stashed someplace for a long time.
"Nothing here is newer than '63 or so. This stash was created when JFK was president. Silver certificates were retired when LBJ demonetized silver in 1964. Gold certificates, especially the larger denominations, were only used by banks after 1934, when FDR outlawed private ownership of gold."
"Go on," Casey crossed his massive hairy forearms. Sveta looked duly impressed.
"The newer notes are brand new. And they're in wrapping from the federal reserve bank here in KC. That would have been the old one at 925 Grand."
"They were taken from a bank vault, most likely."
"Yeah. But by who?"
"If they're real, the only way this much cash would leave a vault and make it to a private citizen's hands would be a bank robbery."
"So we've found D.B. Cooper's stash?" Casey teased.
"Probably not. He heisted federal reserve notes, no silver or gold certificates."
"So we need to search long-lost bank robberies in the Kansas City Federal Reserve region, 1961 to 1963," Sveta said.
I nodded. "The FDIC keeps records of all claims made by member banks for reimbursement of stolen funds. They'll have a nationwide list. That's our starting point. You can supervise the packing here, and I'll call the FDIC."
I excused myself, drove back to the Secret Service Office at 11th and Grand in downtown Kansas City. My route from the new Federal Reserve bank to my office took me past the old Federal Reserve Building at 10th and Grand. I peered up at the old lady, nineteen stories tall and once a hub of national finance. It had been converted into upscale overpriced apartments and office space.
The FDIC had an answer for me by noon. No single bank robberies for $924,000 with the money unaccounted for. Which wasn't surprising. Most bank robberies are committed by one bandit, armed, with a median loss of about five thousand dollars. Make it an armed team, and you bump the hit to the bank up to maybe fifteen grand. In any case, three-fourths of the time the money isn't recovered. The near-million being counted out and packaged by Sveta Birman could have been part of say a dozen different hauls over time. But the closeness of the bills in date argued against that. A string of a dozen robberies would have attracted attention, brought in the FBI, and upped the odds of apprehension. Maybe the robbers decided to quit while they were ahead, hid the loot, and were prevented from recovering it by death or incarceration or both. It sat somewhere - a basement, a metal trunk in the ground, use your imagination - for damned near fifty years before someone dug it up and decided to cash it in.
Sveta knocked on my door a little past three. "It's all packed and ready to go," she told me. And then she got a look at my office walls.
No family pictures; Diane and I had split after three years and no kids fifteen years ago. Parents gone; Dad in a car accident when I was twelve, Mom three years ago from a stroke. Degrees - B.A. and J.D. from the University of Wisconsin, bar certificate from Wisconsin, a commissioning certificate as a Lieutenant J.G. in the Navy, all of which occupied maybe two square feet.
The rest was covered with picture frames with my work and my hobby. Paper money (real, not fake), old U.S. silver certificates that I'd found in change as a kid. And the valuable stuff. Large-size notes, some of them pretty valuable, like the 1899 Indian Head I'd found cheap at a junk store in Minnesota on a case. Gold certificates, military payment certificates from Vietnam, Allied occupation currency from WWII.
I was just on the wrong side of forty, but no alimony, no tuition, nothing but me and Rufus the wonder-mutt to care for. I had a good disposable income after taxes and the 401k.
"You really do surround yourself with your work," she said, a little breathless.
"Not work. Hobby."
"Why not keep it at home?"
"This place is more secure than my home." The building housed the Secret Service, the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, and the KBI. "And I'm here a whole lot more."
"Ah." I noticed her ring finger was bare. She was a little younger than me, call it thirty-five, and that one little syllable contained a lifetime of understanding. "The currency is all packed up, ready to take back. I'll call you on what the lab results tell us. Any leads on the bank robbery angle?"
She sat in one of the gray government-issue chairs that matched the gray government-issue desk and file cabinets while I gave her the rundown on the FDIC's check and my guesses. "It's not too encouraging."
"Maybe we need to broaden the date range," Sveta said.
"Sure. But silver certificates were demonetized in 1964. I guess a reserve bank would have some lying around after that, but no one's knocked over a federal reserve bank that I can recall."
"They didn't just pop out of thin air," she said.
"This assumes they're even genuine," I replied. "That hasn't been confirmed yet."
"True enough. We should know in a couple of weeks." She looked at her watch. "My flight doesn't leave until tomorrow morning. I'm starving."
"Ever been to Kansas City?" She was attractive, and it had been a long time since I'd had company for dinner.
She shook her head. "I've travel a lot for my job, but never here."
"Well," I said,"if you're going to stay in KC, you gotta have barbeque."
"You're an expert?"
"I'm learning." I'd been posted to five offices in my career. Minneapolis was the best, if a bit upper-Midwest sedate. Dallas was the worst, too damned big, traffic awful, summers hotter than front row in hell, and all constant talk about the Cowboys in really bad accents. For cuisine KC had everywhere else beat hands down. We settled on Arthur Bryant's at 18th and Brooklyn, a brick building with formica-and-fluourescent lit décor.
Sveta was short for Svetlana, thirty-three, parents Russian Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union when she was eight to settle in New York's Russian émigré community. Only child, overachiever, accounting from NYU, MBA from Harvard, found her calling just after that with the BEP.
Married at eighteen, parents insisted, to another émigré boy with a love of vodka, other women, and a hair-trigger temper. The third time he'd given her a black eye she'd left him with a concussion and broken arm. I gave her the bare facts about me, the education, the stint as a JAG officer in Iraq after Gulf War I, the three year marriage and divorce.
We headed back to the office as the sun was going down in the fall sky, cutting through the heart of downtown. It was her suggestion that took us to a small club with lots of palms and soft jazz. More personal info, a few stories from me about the Navy, some from her about her childhood in the Soviet Union, and at nine-thirty we found ourselves outside her hotel room, the Marriot on Metcalf, the BEP was traveling her in style, and then we found ourselves inside her hotel room.
The BEP lab results came back a week later. The treasury seals were the correct color and size. The signatures on the bills matched the series. The composition of the paper was right, 75% cotton, 25% linen, et cetera, et cetera. So the BEP cut a check and mailed it to the claimant via certified mail.
Since I still smelled a rat and couldn't figure out how an ordinary citizen could lay his hands on nearly a million in old bills, I got the address for the claimant.
Theodore Dunnigan was an ordinary-looking man, the sort who'd never stand out in a crowd, maybe thirty-five, pudgy-to-husky, mousy brown hair thinning on top, wire-rimmed oval-lens spectacles, slacks, and a polo shirt. The kind of guy who'd make a perfect spy. Or serial killer. Or bank robber.
He drove to a branch bank, deposited the check in an account, got some cash, drove home. The bank records showed us that the account had been opened a month ago. A week later, someone began drawing down the account electronically, in increments of less than $10,000 to skirt reporting laws.
A search had turned up a good bit of info on Dunnigan. He listed his place of employment as ZXD, Ltd., which was located in an industrial park in Overland Park. Other than that, he was Mr. Average, drove his kids in a Chrysler minivan to Little League practice, drove a silver Accord to work, presumably made love to his wife 1.1 times that week. No trips to the Ferrari or BMW dealer, no 40-foot boat materializing in the driveway. The most extravagant item was a 60-inch big screen TV that set him back a couple grand.
I wanted to call Sveta, but the legwork consumed a lot of time. Besides, she was in DC, I was here, and I wasn't about to get into a long-distance relationship. I sighed and wrote off that night as an enjoyable interlude in a drab romantic life.
That, as they say, was that. For a month.
"Got another hoard of currency in today," Casey said from my office door. "Capitol Federal in Topeka got it, called us." On a hunch, I'd had a note circulated to report all large currency redemptions to my office.
"Million-two. Older bills. Wanna look?"
The drive to Topeka took an hour. Sveta was waiting outside the bank, leaning against a government-issue Crown Vic. My heart leapt into overdrive, but I kept my poker face. She gave me a cool handshake, but a Mona Lisa smile when Casey's back was turned.
The bank president, a small fussy man named Pearson, met us in the lobby. He was effusively polite as he showed us to the vault. Lots of high-denomination bills, all of them damaged. A small bundle of $1,000 gold certificates, 1934 series, scorched and singed. Bundles of brand-new twenties and fifties, stuck together and burned. And a real find - two dozen bundles of $100 U.S. notes, with a red seal, dated 1966. Red seal notes rarely found their way into wallets since most of them remained in federal reserve vaults.
So this stash was newer than the last one, though not by much, since there weren't any 1969 series bills, issued when Nixon came into office. So put it before 1970.
Casey and I thanked the bank president, and drove back to Topeka, while Sveta stayed behind to package the currency. She promised to join me in KC later. Buoyed by this, I went to work. I pulled a background search on the claimant, Brian Callas, and almost jumped through the ceiling when I saw his W-4 for last year. It had been issued by ZXD, Inc. of Kansas City, Missouri.
Sveta flew back the next day to D.C. with two hard briefcases filled with money and a deeper appreciation for Kansas City barbeque.
I dove into my investigation. The primary mission of the Secret Service is to protect the nation's financial infrastructure, and has been since the Civil War. This wasn't shaping up to be a bank robbery, so we didn't need to call in the FBI. This one was mine.
ZXD Inc. sat in a quiet corner of a new industrial park that had sprung up around the KC Metro area in the '90s like mushrooms after a wet spell. The buildings were identical concrete-brick and smoked-glass boxes, one story tall, sprinkled among concrete parking lots with small islands sprouting shade trees that were too young to provide much shade against the summer sun. ZXD had no advertising budget, couldn't be found in the Yellow Pages, White pages, on the net, or anywhere else. The owners of the industrial park showed us the lease, which had been signed six months earlier.
The Missouri Secretary of State's office gave a bare minimum of information on ZXD, address, shares issued (one hundred, the bare minimum), type of business - "salvage and recovery," innocuous enough. The chairman was one Joseph Beisinger. A quick internet search, and a more intensive federal database search, turned up an interesting trove of info on Dr. Beisenger. Born 1957 in New York, parents fled from Hungary after the '56 revolution, BA from Columbia 1978, advanced degrees from MIT in particle physics, 1983. Worked for Livermore labs in the '80s, went back to academia in '89, and used his connections to belly up to the federal trough. He rained millions down on MIT before abruptly departing in 2006, reasons unknown and unfathomable.
A few calls and phone-tag sessions with former colleagues teased out some of the details about his work. I tried to follow as best I could, but it boiled down to some unorthodox work on wave function decoherence. It was regarded as a far-out and flaky approach to bending the space-time continuum. It proved a little too far out for the National Academy of Sciences and the DoD. Funding was axed in '06, triggering Beisinger's hasty departure. He had left for parts unknown after hanging around Boston for a few months. Why he'd ended up in Kansas City was a mystery, since he had no connection whatsoever to the town.
I took a day to do surveillance on the building. Exactly one car showed up, a ten-year old Toyota. I recognized Beisinger from a grainy photo taken from an old MIT directory. He entered at eight a.m., left at five-thirty.
Then I had to put ZXD on the back burner as I got roped into doing some background work for an upcoming Presidential visit.
It was a Thursday when the little simmering pot of an investigation into ZXD and large stashes of mutilated bills boiled over. Sveta showed up in my office just after three clutching a hard briefcase. I escorted her to my office, and as soon as I shut the door she withdrew a clear plastic currency holder. Inside -
"Holy Mary Mother of God," I said. It contained a $100,000 gold certificate. The face of Woodrow Wilson stared primly at me, and the back was gold ink, denomination and the promise to pay out one hundred grand in gold to the bearer.
"Sold to a currency dealer in Dallas three days ago; he got suspicious and called BEP."
"This can't be possible. Only three are known to exist."
"True," Sveta said evenly. "Five more are on their way to BEP."
"Five..." I shook my head. The $100,000 note had been printed in 1934, 42,000 in all. They were used for transactions between Federal Reserve banks, and never placed into general circulation. It had been illegal for private citizens to posses one, and all but three had been destroyed in the mid-1960s. The BEP had one, the Smithsonian had one, and the San Diego Federal Reserve Bank's currency exhibit had one; I'd often gazed at it longingly when I worked there. So six new examples would double the known holdings.
"Are they real?"
"That's what we're trying to find out, but I'd say they were." I turned the note over in my hands again. It was brand new, not even creased. Put it on the block at Sotheby's - the winning bid would be in the millions. "All the notes created and destroyed were accounted for. If the serial numbers turn out to be those of notes destroyed, then they're fakes. But if not -"
"If not, we have a real mystery on our hands."
"Agreed." I slowly handed the note back to her, and watched her put it in the case and lock it. "So why are you here?"
"As soon as the notes were turned into the St. Louis fed, the BEP sent me here, seeing as how I was already on the case. I sent five back, signed for the other, brought it out here -"
"To your friendly Secret Service agent who's also on the investigation."
She smiled warmly, nodded. "I was getting a craving for some barbeque," and only then did we greet each other properly with a long kiss. I filled her in on what I'd found out about ZXD and Joseph Beisinger, and she listened intently. But her guesses were as wild as mine.
It was just after two, and a satisfying lunch for two at Gates, that I got a call that led me to the second impossible thing that day.
Allan Goodman ran a little coin and stamp shop across the river, in Kansas City, Kansas. Wyandotte County was the poor cousin of the KC Metro area; neighboring Johnson County, aka "the Golden Ghetto," was the richest in Kansas. Jackson County, Missouri, was also well off. I'd wandered into Allan's place just after moving to KC, to feed my habit, and he'd gladly obliged.
When Sveta and I walked in Allan was with a customer, a middle-aged, pot-bellied and wore a UAW T-shirt selling a bag of maybe two dozen silver dollars. Most likely a laid-off GM assembly line worker trying to get by. Grandma's inheritance would put food on the table for the next few weeks.
Allan finished up, saw me, and disappeared into the back room. Sveta was eyeing a tray of gold coins, while I found a nice pair of R/S notes, regular 1935E $1 silver certificates, one with a red R and another with a red S stamped on them, the result of an experiment with paper that the BEP conducted during WWII. Allan them marked at $350, which was a little low.
"Guy came in this morning, wanted to see what this was worth." Allan was a small man, wispy graying hair on a high forehead, thick glasses with a magnifier clamped to an earpiece. He handed me a plastic 2-by-2 coin holder. My jaw literally dropped. "Yeah. Darn near gave me a heart attack, too, a bad thing at my age."
What I held was not supposed to exist. It was a silver dollar, the variety known as the Peace dollar, issued from 1921 to 1935. The art deco motif and lettering were more aesthetically pleasing than the overwrought Victorian design of the Morgan dollar, its predecessor. The date on the coin read 1964.
Congress had passed a law in August of '64 authorizing the minting of 42 million silver dollars. The Denver Mint struck 300,000 the next year, but then melted every last one. Not even a single specimen saved for the Smithsonian or the Mint museum, or a lousy photograph taken of one. I held one of the great numismatic legends, a coin so rare it didn't even exist.
I showed it to Sveta, and heard a little gasp. She knew.
"I'll give you a hundred for it," I said jokingly. Allan chuckled.
"Guy comes in here this morning, hands it to me, asks me how much it's worth. I tell him I gotta look at it, maybe grade it - it'd be MS-67, by the way." Mint State 67 meant that the coin had never circulated, had gone right from a mint bag to someone's piggy bank. "He says okay, leaves me his phone number, tells me to call him back."
"Make the call," I told him.
Thirty minutes later, a skinny beanpole with bad teeth and a worse haircut sauntered through the door, asked Allan how much for the silver dollar he'd gotten from his uncle before he died.
Before Allan could reply, I sidled up to him, flashed my badge. His eyes got as big as boiled eggs, and he looked quickly over his shoulder at the door. Sveta blocked it, and as wiry as she was, her stance told him he wasn't getting out without a fight. He deflated and began to talk.
"It's not your uncle's, is it?" I said.
Beanpole knew he was cornered. "Huh-uh. I got it from a guy I know, said he found it at work cleaning out a house burned down."
"Name. Place of employment," I demanded, relishing the bad-cop role.
"His name's Glenn Manning," Beanpole said. "He works at some place they clean up after fires and murders. I think it's in Overland Park."
"What's it called?" I growled.
"I dunno." Beanpole started to sweat. "BFD, something like-"
"ZXD?" I asked.
"Yeah. I think that's it."
I got my cell phone out, called Casey, gave him the rundown. He promised to send a couple of agents out immediately to interview Beanpole, who identified himself as Travis Raymond. His buddy Manning lived across the street from him in Shawnee, and I called the KCPD, had them send a squad car to the address. Manning wasn't home. At work, his old lady said, sure enough it was ZXD, late tonight or something.
Beth Hartley and Dan Winger, two of my fellow agents, arrived almost a half hour later. They escorted Beanpole out the door and into a black Crown Vic.
"Now what?" Sveta asked.
I held up the silver dollar. "Search warrant."
We hurried back to my office and began typing up an affidavit on my computer. I showed Casey the '64 Peace dollar.
"Counterfeit," he said.
"It looks real enough." Casey shot me a drill-instructor glare. "Counterfeit. Or you want the FBI to take this over?" So suspicion of counterfeiting it was. While I ran the search warrant affidavit and an application for an arrest warrant for Beisinger to the home of a federal judge, answered a few questions, and got his signature, Casey called in a team of six more agents and half a dozen deputies from the Jackson County Sheriff's office.
We got Beisinger's address from KC Power and Light, sent a couple of deputies there - Beisinger was gone. So they sent an undercover unit to do surveillance. The rest of us headed to ZXD, Inc.
Which looked deserted by the time we arrived. The sheriff's deputies got out a battering ram, and caved in the front door with one big push. I led the way, wearing a Kevlar vest and my 9mm at the ready, Casey following and the four other agents behind him, with the deputies taking up the rear. Sveta waited in one of the squad cars; BEP doesn't sign out weapons to their agents. After sweeping the building, I gave the all clear. It was empty.
The building was a warehouse with a small office suite up front and a large storage area in back. Several pallets were situated around the wall, wrapped in cellophane. I went to one -
"Jackpot," I said, tearing off the shrink-wrap. Inside were bundles of fresh twenty-dollar bills, stacked up to my waist. I called Casey and Sveta over, showed them the bundle, gave it to Sveta.
"They're fakes, but good ones," I told Casey. "Only thing is, I don't see any printing equipment around here."
"Maybe they have a basement," Sveta offered, peering at the bills.
"Pffft," Casey said. "Place like this, it's a box on a slab. Maybe they got another place to print the stuff off. This is just their distribution center."
Sveta had a small test kit out, and began dabbing chemicals on one of the bills. She frowned, held it up to the light.
"It's real. But -" She handed me the bill.
I looked at it again. Series 1988A, didn't see too many of the old-style bills anymore, but if it passed the magic marker test at Wal Mart no one would care. It looked legit. Except that the signatures were wrong. "So it's fake," I said.
"It's not. The paper is right, the ink is right. But the signatures aren't."
I went to the next shrink-wrapped pallet, tore the covering off it. A mass of hundreds and fifties were neatly piled up. I took a bundle of hundreds, looked at it, and the error jumped right out at me. Series 1987, the legend read. I pointed it out to Sveta and Casey.
"There was no Series 1987. They went from 1985 to 1988. And I got no idea who this Michael F. Crawford is who's the Treasury Secretary."
There was a long worktable with some smaller piles of currency lying around. I picked up a bill, and at first thought it was play money, since it was about 50% larger than a normal bill, and was done in a colorful riot of blue and green and red. I looked at the bill closer. On each corner, the number 1000 was done in some kind of metallic-fluorescent ink, and offset to one side - the face of Richard M. Nixon. I held the bill up, and Tricky Dick was watermarked on the other side. Genuine U.S. Currency, by the feel of it, issued in 2007.
"Remember the articles Beisinger wrote?" I asked Sveta, handing her the bill.
"It looked like he's building a time machine," she said. "Collapsing Misner space around an object, causing an acceleration to the speed of light, allowing travel to any point on the space-time continuum."
"Huh?" Casey asked.
"He proposes collapsing local space-time with radiation. When an object touches the edges of the shrinking bubble created, it begins to accelerate exponentially."
"Looping around on itself," Sveta said.
"Exactly," I added. "Eventually, enough velocity is built up to create a kind of wormhole. But it's very unstable. Shine a light beam into it, the beam magnifies until it builds up infinite energy -"
"And explodes," Casey guessed.
"Precisely. If he's managed to solve this problem, it might work. But not even Hawking could find a way to make it work." I shook my head. "A time machine would explain it - go back to the old Fed vaults in, say, 1960, pull a bunch of old bills out, take a blowtorch to them, run them through a washing machine, turn them in as damaged, walk away richer by a million."
"But," Sveta pointed out, "if someone robbed the Federal Reserve of a million dollars, surely it would be noticed. There might be news stories."
"Maybe not - I don't think the government would want to own up to a heist like that. But even if they didn't," I agreed, "there would be a record of it in the Federal Reserve's books."
"But this -" Sveta said, holding up the Nixon bill, waving it.
It all fell into place. I knew exactly where Beisinger was going, and why.
Before moving into its new-ultra-modern digs in 2007, the Federal Reserve Bank in KC was housed at 925 North Grand, on the northeast corner of the intersection. The building was a nineteen-story marble temple dedicated in 1921 with Egyptian-inspired décor in the front lobby. It was listed on the National Historical Register.
Since the old Federal Reserve Bank was a block from our office, we parked the cars in the government lot and hid ourselves around the area. Sveta and I hid at the front of an alley across the street. We whiled away the time talking, me recounting other stake-outs and searches.
It was almost midnight, traffic sparse, when my guess paid off. We heard the rumble of diesel engines, and two large panel trucks rounded a corner, turned into an alleyway, and stopped beside the building. I dashed across the street, flattened myself against the bricks, and peered into the alley.
The trucks were parked by the old fed building. The rear of the second opened, and half a dozen men jumped out. They began placing traffic barriers to block the alley, and then put a metal frame with a canvas screen at the rear of the truck.
I heard a Tommy Lift operating, and saw tall man whom I recognized immediately as Beisinger from an old MIT directory photo walk around from the passenger side of the truck, duck behind the screen. Several minutes of low muttering conversation, then I heard a high-pitched whine, which rose several octaves into silence, and a brilliant bluish-white light bathed the entire area.
I turned back, gave Casey some hand signals, and the team began converging from doorways, behind cars, and around corners.
"You sure about this?" Casey asked. "They haven't had anything in the vaults for years now. Probably turned it into an exercise room for the yuppie scum tenants."
"If I'm right, that's not a problem," I said. I rounded the corner, Casey and a dozen sheriff's deputies behind me, reached the screen and pushed it aside. A dozen heads turned in surprise.
I saw a cone of light extending from a large machine, about the size of a refrigerator, black metal with a large projector on top. The cone extended to the wall, creating a circle maybe seven feet in circumference. A ladder went through the aperture, and a pair of arms was handing a large white canvas bag to one of the guys standing by the hole.
I pulled out my badge and flashed it. "Secret Service. We're here to arrest Joseph Beisinger." At that, Beisinger lunged towards the hole in the wall of the building, used his feet to shove away the pair of hands, and ducked through. "Stay here!" I shouted back, running to the hole, then paused. "Don't turn that off!" I pointed at the machine.
"Why not?" Sveta asked.
"You wanna see me alive again?" And I was through, with a quick kiss on her surprised lips.
The interior of the fed basement was dimly lit by battery-powered lanterns. My foot hit the floor, landed in maybe five inches of water. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust. What I saw shouldn't have been possible, the vault as it had been, large heavy metal shelving holding white canvas bags filled with currency and coins. Several men were pulling bags off the shelves. I looked at one beside me, which read HALF DOLLARS U.S. MINT DENVER 1962. A mint bag of uncirculated Franklin half dollars - worth a small fortune on the market.
And then my eyes really adjusted. The vault looked like it hadn't been used in years. There was dust everywhere. I could pick out huge cracks in the foundation. I stumbled over an upraised crack in the floor. It looked like an earthquake had hit here.
A door at the end of the vault creaked open, and I ran through the vault, kicking up water as I went. The door leading to the vault had been opened, and I ran up the stairs and darted through it. If it was 1962, if he had built a time machine, someone should be here, security guards, police, something, I could pick up a phone and dial - wait, 911 didn't exist, damned if I knew what the number for the KCPD was, if there was a phone booth around-
The door at the top of the stairs was open. I hurled myself through it, not knowing what to expect, thinking maybe I'd find myself in a tail-finned three-martini WASPy America where JFK was still President.
What I should have seen as I exited the door was a three-story atrium done in marble, patterned after the Temple of Karnak, palm fronds and ornate brasswork, large glass chandeliers hanging dark in the night.
What I actually saw looked like the real ruins of Karnak. The building, once the highest in Kansas City, in all of Missouri, was gone; presumably it had been reduced to the huge mound of rubble around me.
A small rockfall to my left caught my attention. I charged that direction, caught sight of Beisinger over a pile of concrete. The rubble cleared and I found myself standing on the curb of Grand Avenue, and Beisinger was on the opposite side. I brought up my 9mm, fired a shot over his head. Beisinger stopped dead in his tracks, threw up his hands. I walked towards him, keeping my Beretta trained on him.
"I'm arresting you for bank robbery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. section 2114."
His reaction threw me completely. He dropped his hands, began laughing.
"You're Joseph Beisinger?" I asked.
"Yes," the voice held a trace of a European accent. "And you are - ?"
"Thomas Barrett, U.S. Secret Service." As I crossed the street, I looked both ways. More flattened buildings, some marked only by naked steel beams poking crookedly skyward, bent and melted. A few cars stood in the street, rusted and burnt hulks. One could have been a bullet-nose Studebaker, another was definitely a '57 Chevy.
"We haven't explored this timeline," Beisigner said calmly, "but we suppose that it involved a nuclear exchange in the early 1960s. There seems to be a cluster of them around this frequency."
"So I guessed."
"You read my papers?"
"No. I found a bundle of Nixon k-notes at your warehouse."
He smiled. "I was planning on keeping those as a novelty. It's a quantum bridge generator. It allows one to travel between our reality and an infinite number of others."
"Where Kansas City - you picked here because one of the biggest banks in the world was now an upscale office complex, and wouldn't have security crawling all over, right?" Beisinger nodded. "And travel to where KC got nuked, the bills got incinerated by the blast, or damaged by ruptured water lines or by a rising water table flood basements. What about radioactivity?"
"After almost fifty years, it's at acceptable levels. No more than you get from a couple of x-rays."
I lowered my gun. "I still have to arrest you for robbing a Federal Reserve Bank."
Beisinger laughed again. "Then I'm in deep trouble. This is at least the tenth time I've emptied out the vaults here. And we've cleaned out vaults in other banks around town, time permitting."
"Willie Sutton, Mr. Barrett," Beisinger said. An old-time bank robber, asked why he robbed banks, replied with unassailable logic, "because that's where the money is."
"MIT and the DoD wouldn't give it to you -"
"I decided to get the funding myself."
"How much, so far?"
"Roughly twenty million."
"But we've only seen a couple million in damaged bills -"
"The undamaged bills we either sell to dealers who ask few questions, or launder through offshore accounts in the Bahamas."
"One of your employees took a silver dollar that's not supposed to exist, and tried to sell it."
"Doesn't surprise me." Beisinger sighed. "All that money, even though they were getting paid well, I can't change human nature." He looked around at the post-nuclear wasteland that had once been downtown Kansas City. "If you're still planning to arrest me, I suggest you turn your back for sixty seconds, and let me get lost."
"You wouldn't last a week here. Maybe less."
"And how long would I last in a federal prison? This way, I have a fighting chance. And, oddly, the idea of tossing civilization away and starting over is oddly appealing."
I shook my head. "Huh-uh. But don't worry. I have an idea how to work this out."
"Look at this," Sveta told me. "One thousand rubles, uncirculated. Dated 1995." She held up a large piece of paper, maybe three inches by six. The portrait of a serious, bearded man in a military uniform on one side, a double-headed eagle on the reverse, Cyrillic lettering all around. The bill was a riot of color, blue and green and orange.
"Who's the heavy?"
"Tsar Peter IV," she said. "They brought back a few sacks full, so I got this to 'catalog.'" She winked at me.
"It should go right next to your hundred-ruble Soviet note, it's the same year."
"Which one? The Lenin or Gorbachev portrait?"
"Both." And she was off to her office. I leaned back and smiled. Life was pretty good.
After arresting Beisinger, I had escorted him back through the quantum barrier, and all of his crew were whisked away to a federal holding facility in Kansas City, kept there for two weeks while they were debriefed with a cover story involving radiation, decontamination and a quarantine.
I led the evidence cataloging for the ZXD warehouse. It took us a week.
The Treasury Department and the U.S. Attorney said it was still government property. But I disagreed. The money from the dead worlds, where the Russians or Chinese or whomever had nuked us, was abandoned property. There was, as far as could be determined, no functioning U.S. Government there to reclaim the bills, and after forty years or so you'd think they might have tried. That they hadn't indicated that it had been written off.
That mollified the U.S. Attorney some. I pointed out that the means of the "robberies" had been classified way above Top Secret, filing charges meant he could be squeezed between defense counsel and the CIA/NSA/DoD and at least a dozen other agencies.
With that, I forced a compromise. No criminal charges. Beisinger got all the money and personnel he needed from the government to perfect the generator, and to build a Mark II, which generates a wider field. Wide enough for, say, a military deuce-and-a-half to drive through - and drive back out, loaded with gold and silver bullion and coins and currency.
Half a dozen Fort Knoxes, at least ones that didn't get slagged by a Soviet warhead, now sit empty after operations that put Goldfinger to shame. Thus, the known gold reserves of the United States have been boosted sixfold; all top secret, of course, but it helps with the balance of payments to foreign countries. A few fake gold mining operations in Alaska serve as a so-far believable cover story.
One of the copies of the machine sits in the basement of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, under lock and key. The State Bank in Moscow has been raided a few times, for gold bullion and other items of historical interest, such as the note Sveta was now admiring.
For my work, I got promoted. I'm now running the Treasury's Asset Recovery Office. A lot of paper-shuffling, but I get to go along on crosstime missions when I want. When I don't, I've left standing orders that part of the cataloging process of any alternate worlds we find includes collecting samples of the local money, currency and coins, since they're of great historical value. And, just in case anyone tries passing them here, we know where to begin the search and arrest process. Complete hogwash, but I made it sound pretty convincing.
We've got our own complex now, at an undisclosed location west of the Mississippi. It's quite pretty here, fairly isolated, and hotter than I like in summer. But my office is spacious, with more than enough to hold my old collection, plus my new one.
The Nixon $1000 note is framed - along with a matching nickel dated 2004. Both come from a timeline where the fed is still housed at 925 Grand and civilization hasn't been erased by war or plague or natural disaster.
Japanese occupation money issued in San Francisco in the '50s, Soviet occupation money from the '90s, both from war-torn remnants of Kansas City. A $100,000 gold certificate with Woodrow Wilson's portrait. Others with Calvin Coolidge's and Teddy Roosevelt's portraits. Remnants of dead worlds.
And some not so dead. A few teams have spent time in the alternate timelines, surveying the landscape and bringing back souvenirs. Bills just like ours, but others done in a wash of colors and different sizes.
My favorite, though, is in a small Lucite holder, illuminated. It's a crisp, uncirculated $100 bill, Ronald Reagan smiling jauntily from the center, series 2005B.
Life is good here, but somewhere else, it's better. In the lower left-hand corner, there's a signature for the Treasurer of the United States.